We have treasures in Los Angeles that move on to become icons and then become forgotten or at least untended-to as we move on to the next fashionable trends in the arts. I found that to be the case with my evening with native Los Angelino William Wilson, one of our treasures that should still be included and listened to.
Having become familiar with his name in the fall of ’65, when I had to sneak into the Ed Kienholz exhibit at LACMA since I was underage, I have enjoyed his views on art for past decades and have missed his presence from The Los Angeles Times. He’s always been sort of a Garrison Keillor of art for me, as was another of our local treasures, Dr. Norman Nuerburg, who was instrumental in creating the original Getty Museum of Antiquities and continued his work by painstakingly and flawlessly restoring most of our Southern California missions. Spending time with these men is like being with a very patient grandparent who happens to be self-effacingly brilliant.
My evening with Bill Wilson was thoughtfully arranged by Jack Rutberg, who owns Jack Rutberg Fine Arts Gallery which is currently exhibiting a show by Hans Burkhardt -– “Painting of the 1960s.” I didn’t know what to expect, since I usually avoid these sorts of things like the plague. I stopped taking “pretension vaccinations” years ago, but because of the guest speaker, I just had to go. The crowd was fine. Not too much cosmetic surgery or blue rinse hair. I just didn’t try to make any friends or discuss the current exhibit.
Mr. Wilson looked just like I wanted. Old, worn, baggy khaki pants, wrinkled plaid shirt, navy blue blazer of indeterminate years, thinning hair sort of parted and combed to the side, and the warmest, most lovable demeanor I could have wished for. More than talking about art, he wanted to talk about growing up in his Los Angeles and the experiences that got him to be who he is. His views on art were very simple, and he glossed over them perfunctorily: listen to ourselves when we look at art and how it makes us feel; no bad reviews, just write with clarity and tell what the stuff is about; just try to get people to read what you’ve written so they can say “so what” about the nature of the art, but be interested because what they’ve read is by someone who’s interested; don’t try to talk anybody into anything, just tell it like it is. And that’s just what Mr. Wilson did during the evening, but about his life –- not being an art critic.
Our home-grown art critic has been nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize and has many other acknowledgments. He’d never tell you. He was here this evening to talk about his book he compiled about 100 Years of Los Angeles, which he’s been writing for over seven years since he left the Times. First, he told us about being illegitimate, and his mother, whom he has nothing but the greatest respect for, and their struggle to survive here in Los Angeles. He even brought his birth certificate to show that he had no name when he was born, and “William Wilson” was his made-up name. He told us repeatedly that he didn’t know who is father was. It was only when I spoke with him later that he personally showed me his original birth certificate which he’d brought with him –- 144 South Wilton, Los Angeles -– and then he showed me the newspaper clipping of his mother’s suicide at 40 when she fell from a balcony at the Biltmore Hotel. He’d been out of town and came home to this newspaper article which had been written as if the writer had known her and was full of elaborate and painfully untrue details. None of this was told to me with the least bit of rancor, just that he needed to tell someone who would listen. And I could listen to him forever.
His anecdotes during the evening were spontaneous and delightful. He started talking about when he was first writing about art and went to the Laguna Art Museum. From there, he seemed to naturally segue to the Laguna Sawdust Festival and the Pageant of the Masters. Somehow we next got to Ed Kienholz and his assemblages which, according to Mr. Rutberg, was when the ‘60s brought a “cataclysmic change” in art. To this, Mr. Wilson added that then art started having labels: Women’s Art, Black Art, Chicago Art, etc., and that the artists resented and rejected being labeled and categorized but then suddenly embraced the labeling when it became advantageous to them and their art. This lead to Mr. Wilson’s reminisces of Andy Warhol.
It seems that Mr. Wilson was called to write Warhol’s obituary. Mr. Wilson recalled the second time that he met Warhol — Warhol didn’t remember him but that’s because Warhol was crazy. Okay. This was only confirmed by the time that Mr. Wilson and Warhol were walking down the street in New York and it was freezing cold. Warhol didn’t even have a jacket on, so Mr. Wilson asked him why he wasn’t cold. “Why, that’s because I wear women’s pantyhose underneath my clothes,” Warhol matter-of-factly told him. Oh. And there was this party somewhere downtown in New York, and Mr. Wilson was dancing with this very “exotic” woman who had no eyebrows. Mr. Wilson, looking for something to say, mentioned her lack of eyebrows. Well, she thought he’d never ask because she didn’t want him to think that she was making “a statement.” It was just that she’d gotten crabs in her eyebrows and had to shave them off. With this, Mr. Wilson told us that he was probably the only straight art critic who’d never been married — just didn’t want anyone telling him what to do! I actually guffawed at this, much to the shock of the woman next to me. I responded to her look by telling her it’s okay because I’m a widow.
Even with Mr. Wilson’s ramblings and wanderings, everything he said was so straight-forward and no-nonsense because that’s just how he is. Unfortunately, this was a little too much for some of the attending “art weenies” who had expected him to deal with the pithy, intrinsic value of the artistic process. He already told them that his response to art that he has no reaction to is that “he doesn’t speak the language.” As they impolitely drifted out, he responded to a question about figuring it all out. He said that now that he’s not working for the paper, he got his first pet –- a cat named Blue -– and he can’t even figure her out.
When I was shaking hands with him later, I asked him about his cat which he finds fascinating, as did I. He said he just can’t seem to figure this cat out. I asked him how long he’d had the cat. “Eighteen years.” Go figure. Illustrations by Emberly Modine